To Shun or Shake Hands? Assessing Harper’s CHOGM Boycott

Prime Minister Harper’s decision to boycott the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), which concluded on the weekend in Sri Lanka, was hotly debated over the past few weeks. Now that the meeting has ended, what impact has the boycott had? Did Harper’s boycott, alongside similar decisions by the Indian and Mauritian Prime Ministers, embarrass Sri Lankan President Rajapakse? Or would it have been better to attend, like UK Prime Minister David Cameron, but in a blaze of publicity about Sri Lanka’s poor human rights record?

Here in Canada, critics of the government said the boycott was a mistake, a further sign of the disengaged nature of the Tory’s foreign policy that leaves Canada shouting from the sidelines but shut out from influencing events. Those defending Harper’s decision said attending would send the wrong signal, ‘rewarding’ the Rajapakse regime even though it has done too little to seriously investigate war crimes allegations and continues to erode the rule of law and respect for human rights. Harper was, in this view, right to take a principled stand showing Canada’s serious concern for human rights in Sri Lanka. In return, Harper’s critics replied that the best way to express such concern is to go to Sri Lanka and do so in person.


A boycott by some changed the terms of others’ engagement.

In general terms, this debate is hardly new. Governments that aim to promote human rights through their foreign policy will inevitably (indeed frequently) confront the question of whether a country’s poor human rights record means it should be shunned or engaged in earnest. On the one hand, isolating a repressive regime is a sure way to make clear that its disregard for human rights will carry a cost, especially where this isolation leads to reduced trade, aid and other relationships. Refusing to meet the leadership, denying the country membership in key international bodies, boycotting events it hosts, and publicly denouncing its policies: all will send a clear message that human rights matter, and give much needed moral support to dissidents in the country.

On the other hand, the case for engagement is often just as compelling. How better to persuade a government to change its policies than by reasoned argument? Isolation simply strengthens the hardliners in the regime, whereas engagement allows outsiders to identify the reformers and, through careful support, to buttress their position. Engagement also makes it easier to support civil society reformers, and an active diplomatic presence in the country can offer important protection to their work. Further, as it is less obviously antagonistic, engagement may more easily attract support from other countries, allowing for strong coalitions in support of key human right demands.

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Of course, the decision to shun or shake hands will be influenced by factors other than the country’s human rights record. Trade, aid, military and other ties to the country will affect this decision. When such factors are important enough to trump human rights concerns, governments tend to make the case for engagement. When such factors are of lesser importance, and a country’s human rights record is truly odious, shunning is more likely.

However, these apparent strong distinctions between ‘confrontational’ shunning (or boycott) and a more ‘conciliatory’ engaging are often hard to maintain. This seems especially clear in the Sri Lankan case, where they quickly dissolved as events at the Commonwealth meeting unfolded. Though Canada’s decision to stay away had been widely (and critically) reported in the Sri Lanka press some weeks before, it was largely forgotten. Rather, it was the decision of Prime Minister Cameron to attend, to visit the mainly Tamil Jaffna peninsula and to speak out repeatedly on human rights issues that dominated global press coverage. Moreover, the fact that he did attend and raised human rights issues brought more foreign reporters to Sri Lanka, and it meant they repeatedly raised human rights questions in press conferences with President Rajapakse and his ministers. The result was that Sri Lanka’s human rights record became the dominant theme of the event. Although the fawning or cowed local press played it down, there was no mistaking the fact that it was a PR disaster for the government.

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If Prime Minister Harper’s intention was to put pressure on the Sri Lankan government, it would seem, therefore, that he could have done so much more effectively by going to Sri Lanka, accompanying Prime Minister Cameron to Jaffna and joining in Cameron’s vocal demand for President Rajapakse to allow for a full investigation of war crimes allegations. Indeed, this is what some independent voices in Sri Lanka are now arguing. Although diaspora Tamils in Canada and the UK largely supported the boycott, the Tamils in Jaffna, still fearful of an overbearing military presence, may well have preferred a visit that gave them a chance to be seen and heard. (The fact that Canada’s low-level envoy to CHOGM, the somewhat hapless Parliamentary Secretary, Deepak Obhrai, did travel to Jaffna doesn’t change this, as few seemed to notice.)

Yet calling Canada’s decision a mistake would be an altogether too hasty conclusion. One of the key reasons Prime Minister Cameron gave prominence to the human rights issue was that he was under pressure at home not to attend CHOGM. Ed Milliband, the opposition Leader of the Labour Party, strongly criticized Cameron’s decision to attend, as did some of the British press and human rights groups. And in this regard, there is no doubt that the boycott announced some weeks ago by Harper set an important precedent. Prime Minister Cameron and others were obliged to explain their attendance, especially after the Indian and Mauritian Prime Ministers joined the boycott. In other words, a boycott by some changed the terms of others’ engagement.

In the event, although neither would likely have foreseen it, Prime Minister Cameron’s engagement ended up being far more confrontational—and perhaps effective—than Prime Minister Harper’s absence. Yet to give Harper his due, his stand helped to set the confrontation in motion.

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